How good was Saquon’s rookie year, really?

I was inspired by Ed's "Will We See the old Barkley" article. So blame him for this rant! :)

When we discuss Saquon’s future value/worth, I think we do him—and all RBs—a disservice. We seem to accept that WRs will make nearly twice as much, if not more, as elite RBs, as if that’s somehow indicative of their additional value to the team. I couldn’t disagree more (and I love WRs. I played WR and QB in my halcyon Pop Warner days. We had a terrible O-line, too, so WR was much more fun!)

One aspect of the Barkley story I think we overlook is how we compare him to WRs in general, and to, say 2018-Odell in particular (the last elite receiver/year we've had). Again, I loved me some Odell on the Giants! So don't mistake this for criticism of #13. But like all WRs, we tend to look at their "production" in terms of their catches: number of catches, yds per catch, TD catches, YAC, etc. But I think that's unfair to RBs. What we should be looking at is their targets, and really, maybe even their total routes run. If you divide Odell's "production numbers" by 117 (his targets) rather than by 77 (his catches), it tells a very different story, no? And if you divide it by the number of routes he ran…

Also, Saquon had 91 catches that year. Easily half of those were check downs, right? How many of those check downs were because Odell (& the other receivers, but we're talking about Odell) simply wasn't open. Isn't that a failure on Odell’s part? Why is that any less of a fail than when Saquon takes a handoff and gets tackled for a three-yard loss just as he's touching the ball? But Saquon's negative plays—even when they’re clearly not his fault—go into his stats, whereas Odell (again, any WR) when he gets locked up, as in, gets no separation to the point where the QB has to check down to his RB in the flat, doesn't even show up as a target. That's not fair at all, IMO!

What we'd need (but will never have) is access to the play-call. Who was the primary receiver on each pass play? How many times was a given WR the intended target, but was covered so well that the QB had to look elsewhere? Because those "failures" are just as bad as a RB not seeing the cutback lane, the hole that we all get to see so clearly on replay in slo-mo from the end zone camera, that leads us to say that that RB "missed" the hole, aren’t they? But we don’t see or talk about those un-separated routes, do we? What we do know is that, if a running play is called, the result of that play, good or bad, will almost certainly wind up in the RBs stat sheet. But what percentage of passing plays that were designed for a particular receiver will wind up in his stat sheet? Probably a lot fewer than half, when you look at: the times he was covered, the incompletions, the times when, though he was open, say, the RT whiffed on his block, so the QB had to take a sack or get rid of the ball early, the times a Safety rolled over to double him and the QB checked down to someone else, etc.

According to PFF (who usually gets these kinds of raw data stats right, no?), Odell avgd 13.7 yds/catch in 2018, but only 8.8 yds/target. And obviously a lot fewer yds/route run. Saquon avg’d 5 yds/carry and nearly 8 yds/catch. Saquon had 15 total TDs and over 2,000 total yards from scrimmage, while Odell had 6 total TDs and under 1,100 total scrimmage yards. But if most people had a choice, right now, of whether to sign a player who’d just had the season had by 2018-Odell or the one had by 2018-Saquon, they’d pick Odell, because "it’s a passing league," and RBs are easily replaceable anyway.

Um, not so much.

Taking all of what Saquon brought to the table—even including his poor pass-pro (personally, I’d never have him doing any pass-blocking, I’d have him running wheel routes or crossing patterns, but that’s just me), IMO, in 2018 Saquon was much more valuable, more efficient, more productive on a per-play basis, than any WR that year, maybe any WR ever. By the way, what about when a WR misses a block on a running play? Is there a stat for that? We blame Saquon for not pass-protecting well, and he only had 72 pass-pro snaps that whole season, do we blame WRs when they miss blocks, say, on sweeps? Odell had a lot more blocking reps--222 to 72—than Saquon had pass-pro reps, btw.

Another point to consider: when RBs as ball-carriers attempt to juke a defender unsuccessfully, usually they get tackled right there, and the play comes to an end. Whether that was two yards behind the LOS, or 8 yards downfield, the play ends and the resulting yardage stat goes in the RBs column. But when a WR jukes a CB unsuccessfully during his route, he gets covered and the ball isn’t thrown to him. So, most of the time, no stat reflects that failure to juke. No target, and no acknowledgement that he was unable to do his job. Put another way, Odell had 119 targets in 2018, but Eli had 576 pass attempts that year (not to mention the 47 sacks—how many of those were because Odell didn’t get open fast enough?). How many of those "other" 457 pass pays were designed, called, intended for Odell but he just didn’t get open? I bet 25 of ‘em, easy, maybe 50. Shouldn’t those plays go under Odell’s "yards/per" column? Meanwhile, every time Saquon’s number was called on a running play, he got the ball. Whether it was blocked well or not (usually, not). Whether the box was stacked or not. Whether there was an unblocked blitzer in his face, or not. And he still had nearly twice as many total scrimmage yards as Odell. But people still will say that RBs aren’t valuable, not all that distinguishable from one another ("you can get one in the 4th round") and aren’t worth $15M/per. But WRs are worth $25M/per, and QBs are worth $40M/per.

I. Don’t. Get. It.

The upshot: no one knows how close to 2018 Saquon will come this year. He does seem healthier than he’s been in a while, though, and he will almost certainly have: better blocking in front of him, better schemes/play calls, and better coaching overall (one would hope). So, maybe that offsets the half-step slower he may be. But if he runs for 1,200 yards and catches 75 passes for another 600 yards and scores 12 TDs, and we don’t re-sign him because "RBs aren’t worth $15M/per," I’m gonna be pissed!

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